Benzene is an organic chemical compound sometimes known as benzol. It has a particularly sweet smell and is a colorless, flammable liquid. Benzene is a major industrial solvent and is used in the production process of plastic, oil, synthetic rubber and many dyes.
The scientist Michael Faraday discovered benzene in 1825. He separated it from oil gas and called it bicarburet of hydrogen. It is produced naturally in forest fires and volcanoes, and it is a carcinogen and a major component in cigarette smoke. Until the Second World War, the chemical was manufactured as a by-product of coal production, mainly in the steel industry.
In the 1950s, there was a growing demand for benzene, especially from the plastics industry. Out of this need, manufacturers began producing it from petroleum. Most of today’s supply comes from the petrochemical industry, with only a small amount obtained from coal.
Benzene is a chemical with many uses. Because of its sweet smell, it was used as an aftershave in the 19th century. Before the 1920s, it was used regularly as an industrial solvent. This was before people became aware of the dangers of its toxicity. It was once widely used as an additive to gasoline, but this practice was also abandoned due to health concerns.
Commonly, benzene is used as an additive to other chemicals. It is used to make styrene, which is used to make plastics and polymers, and in the manufacturing process of nylon. Small amounts are used in the manufacturing processes of drugs, detergents, pesticides and explosives.
Exposure to benzene can have very serious health effects. High levels of exposure can cause breathing disorders, dizziness, drowsiness, headaches and nausea. If one were to eat food or drink liquid containing benzene, a rapid heart rate, vomiting and stomach irritation may result. Very high levels of exposure can ultimately lead to death.
There are tests that can be performed to show whether a person has been exposed to the chemical. Benzene can be measured by a breath or blood test. Both these tests must be performed shortly after exposure, as the chemical disappears very quickly from the body. In the United States, the maximum amount permissible in water is 0.005 milligrams per liter.